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NBA PM: LeBron James’ Moment of Truth

LeBron James has come quite a ways since he last wore a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform; is he ready to live up to the hype? … Houston’s next x-factor?

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When LeBron James was “finally” drafted into the NBA, it was as if The Chosen One had finally arrived to receive a career’s worth of basketball glory. The rest of the league was sure to bow down and do little to stand in the way of James’ amazing and overpowering hoops prowess.

Only that’s not exactly what happened.

James was a great player from his first opening tip, no question about that, but he struggled to live up to the hype that preceded him. His apologists tried to blame it on teammates, coaches, and anything else that they could conjure up, but the bottom line was that as good as James was, seven years into his NBA career he was still notably ringless.

Enter Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami HEAT.

As embarrassing as LeBron’s “Decision” spectacle was, it demonstrated that he knew he needed All-Star caliber help to further his quest to win an NBA championship. Gathered together on a stage in American Airlines Arena in Miami, the HEAT’s superstar trio promised “not one, not two” but many championships to their crazed fan base. They struggled through November, but by the time December rolled around the HEAT were wrecking havoc, especially in the Eastern Conference. They strolled into Dallas preparing to blast the Western Conference champion Mavericks right off the court, but once again James found that the reality of winning a championship was much more elusive than he expected. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, in particular, toppled the heavily favored HEAT to win the first championship in franchise history.

LeBron was stunned. Though loaded up with individual honors, he simply couldn’t find a way to grasp the ultimate prize.

That summer he went to Houston to work with and learn from Hakeem Olajuwon, and that proved to be one of the most important decisions he could have made. A dejected LeBron told the two-time champion and Hall of Famer that he just couldn’t understand why he could win a championship. After all, he was the best player in the NBA and possibly the world. Fortunately, Olajuwon told LeBron something he had never been told by his entourage of yes-men and the hyperbole-spewing paparazzi that surrounded him from middle school on.

“You don’t respect the game,” Olajuwon told Basketball Insiders of his conversation with LeBron. “Promising championships, showboating with powder, taking pretend pictures of yourself and making fun of opposing players who play through sickness (Nowitzki) was disrespectful, and as long as LeBron failed to respect his opponents and respect the game he would never be a champion. Olajuwon spent a great deal of time working with LeBron on his post moves and foot work and also showed him how to best take advantage of his size and quickness, but the most important lesson The Dream passed on to The King was how to think and behave like a champion.

Two years later, LeBron was celebrating his second NBA championship with streamers and glitter littering the floor where pre-game talcum powder used to reside.

The HEAT may have fallen short of their goal of four or more championships, but LeBron grew into a champion while wearing the red and black, a fact that has been demonstrated clearly in the way he handled free agency this time around.

“I’m not promising a championship,” James write in a widely reprinted letter to Cleveland Cavaliers fans. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested.”

That’s not the arrogant, presumptive James who was run out of Cleveland on a rail by upset Cavaliers fans and arrived to equally passionate but embracing and enthusiastic HEAT fans. In his letter, LeBron also called Miami the equivalent of his college experience, since he never went.

Cavaliers fans hope and believe that LeBron is now prepared to be “The King,” “The Chosen One,” and, more importantly, the champion they tried to crown the first time around.

Houston’s Next X-Factor

Free agency has certainly not gone as the Houston Rockets hoped so far. Last summer’s big winners in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes have struggled to follow that success with one more All-Star addition to help push them over the top. They never got serious consideration from LeBron James, and even Chris Bosh bailed on them after seeming to be bound for Houston. Carmelo Anthony opted to stay in New York and even coveted forward Chandler Parsons is headed out of town via an incredible offer from the Dallas Mavericks. The Rockets are now in hot pursuit of an additional star through trade, targeting Minnesota’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Rajon Rondo, though it remains to be seen if the team truly has the necessary assets to land either one.

Whoever winds up on the roster come opening night, the Rockets are going to need some strong contributions from young players who have spent time developing with the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In the wake of Jeremy Lin’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, much could be asked of second-year point guard Isaiah Canaan, who is leading the team’s entry in the Las Vegas Summer League.

“I have to go out there and be a lead guard, lead the team the best I can, make sure I get everybody involved, and try to be an extension of the coach on the court,” Canaan tells Basketball Insiders of his goal as he tries to show he’s ready for more time with the pro side of the franchise. “I’ve been paying attention to the guys who played in Orlando (summer league) that are out here playing with us. I’ve been trying to pay attention to where they are comfortable on the court so I can get them the ball in those areas. At the same time, just trying to work some of this rust off. We haven’t played in over a month, so I’m trying to get back so I can go out there and compete.”

Last year’s Rockets were clearly deficient on the defensive end of the court, and while Canaan is a capable scorer, he understands that where he can really make his mark is on the other side of the court.

“I’ve been trying to work on my overall game, but trying to prove that I can be a defensive player, as well,” says Canaan. “I can be a pest on the defensive end and try to bother the other team’s guard, as well.”

As things stand today, the Lin trade left a gaping hole behind Patrick Beverley in Houston’s rotation, which could prove to be a golden opportunity for Canaan.

“I’m a competitor, so whatever’s in front of me, I’m going to go out there and do the best I can and compete,” says Canaan. “I’m looking to prove to the coaches that I belong here and that I can play significant minutes and help this team. … (The Rockets) have told me to just keep coming out here, playing hard and competing. When the opportunity comes and I’m asked to do a job, I’m going to go out there and do it. I love the Vipers to death, but I’m going to stay away from down there.”

Canaan has always been something of a go-to scorer and a primary offensive initiator, but with James Harden in Houston handling a lot of those duties it has given Canaan an opportunity to expand his game a little bit more.

“They actually make it easier on me because I know that at certain times I don’t have to bring the ball up and I can play off the ball,” says Canaan. “James is a great creator, so he can create shots for other people or create on his own and all I have to do is knock down the shot. That makes my job a lot easier.”

Houston’s Plan A might not to be playing Isaiah Canaan big minutes; not just yet, anyway. But if the Rockets fail to land a bigger name through trades or free agency, Canaan could very well turn out to be a key x-factor for the Rockets next season.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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